Pentecost – the descent of the Holy Spirit
The feast of Pentecost is the closing day of the Feast of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus in the form of tongues of fire. This was the fulfillment
of the prophecy of John the Baptist, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not
worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
It is through the Holy Spirit that the risen Lord continues to be present among us, and in whom we have the hope of
resurrection. This is seen in Romans 8:9-11: “But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
The Jewish feast celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai; the Christian feast, the giving of the Spirit to fulfill John 1:17, “For while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” It is the day of the gift of the Spirit. We might ask, “Where are the gifts of the Spirit today? Where are the gifts of speaking in tongues and healing?” However, even if the more “flashy” gifts are not present, and the spiritual Fathers always warn us against expecting these, we still have the power of faith, hope, and love – theological virtues which can be practiced only in the grace of the Spirit. Another manifestation of the Spirit
is ordination. The Western Church, in general, sees the priesthood as given at the Last Supper. The Eastern Church, however, more often sees the priesthood as established at Pentecost. The eucharist itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit, by whose power bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.
Pentecost Day concludes the reading of the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John following Pascha. The term Pentecost, in fact, first applied to the fifty days following Easter, which was a period of celebration and joy. During this time it was forbidden to fast or kneel. St. Irenaeus (Fragment 7, 2nd century) claims that this is an apostolic custom. The earliest reference to this custom is found in a non-canonical book, the Acts of Paul (180): “While Paul was in prison, the brethren, since it was Pentecost, wept not neither did they bow the knee, but they stood and prayed rejoicing.” According to Canon 20 of the Council of Nicea, no fasting or kneeling was permitted during the fifty-day period following Pascha.
The feast of the Fifty Days was a time of spiritual harvest, which is the reason the Acts of the Apostles were read, celebrating the growing Church. St. John Chrysostom explicitly connected the feast of Pentecost with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Because it was the feast of the giving of the Spirit, baptisms were done on Pentecost Sunday and “All you who have been baptized into Christ …” is sung on the feast in the Liturgy to this very day. However, there was some opposition to this custom in the East, since it was impossible to prepare for the baptism by observing a fast.
One of the popular Pentecost customs is to put up greenery, particularly from the linden tree. In the Slav tradition, Pentecost is often called Rusalija. The displaying of greenery is given a Christian meaning, representing new life through the Spirit. It probably was a “Christianization” of a pagan custom, for whom Spring was a time of release of the souls of children or maidens who had committed suicide or met a violent death. During rusalki these spirits were treated with pity and wreaths of flowers were offered to them. This feast was called rosalia in Latin and anthesteria in Greek, and became associated with Pentecost because it was a Spring feast. The day before Pentecost itself is a commemoration of all the departed, a Christian confrontation with the mystery of death and the hope of the general resurrection.
In the evening of Pentecost Sunday, a special Vespers is celebrated, and during it, three long prayers of kneeling are said. This Vespers, then, is a return to the “ordinary time” of the Church year after the celebration of the Fifty Days. These prayers follow the structure of the Constantinople sung Vespers of three antiphons with attendant prayers. The second part of these three prayers are the original prayers of the three antiphons, and special prayers for Pentecost and for the departed are joined. The week after Pentecost was observed festively, and there is no fasting. The weekends with the Feast of All Saints. This originally was called “all martyrs,” that is the feast of those who gave witness to their faith in Jesus the Messiah. This cannot be done without the power of the Holy Spirit, beyond all human strength. It is only the Spirit who can enable us to live the Paschal Mystery.
When Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem, the apostles all fled, being afraid for their lives. The path to glorification leads through the acceptance of death, which Jesus exemplifies and the apostles could not initially accept. After the Resurrection, the apostles still could not proclaim the gospel until they received the Holy Spirit. In the Gospels, then, martyrdom is connected with witness given in the Holy Spirit: “When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say” (Luke 12:11-12).
Pentecost is the completion of the mystery of the Resurrection, and the apostles and the Christians after them can be martyrs – witnesses to the gospel of Christ.